Travel Story Shanghai snapshot

Shanghai, China

The photogenic surrounds of the historic Bund are surpassed only by the colourful locals.

In many ways, a walk along the Bund tells the story of much of Shanghai’s history, from the foreign concessions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — when the grand buildings that line the city’s most famous promenade took shape — to the thicket of high rises that has sprouted in Pudong, on the Huangpu River’s opposite bank, in more recent decades. 

But the best part of walking the Bund isn’t the row of golden sandstone buildings to one side, or the river traffic and the glitzy skyscrapers to the other. It’s the other people who have gathered here on this typically smoggy Shanghai morning.

There’s the couple gazing out to the hazy skyline across the river, and the little kid throwing a wobbly in his pram. The three older ladies taking a break on a bench, and the younger woman posing with the Oriental Pearl Tower in the background. There’s the occasional jogger, the businessmen in black, a policeman here and there. There’s even a small boy in a Spider-Man suit, perched on his dad’s shoulders and brandishing a pine cone. 

Most of all, though, there are brides and grooms. The men are in suits or tuxedos and the women in diaphanous white dresses, or sleek red gowns, or baby-pink taffeta, occasionally hiking a skirt to reveal black track pants and chunky white sneakers. All are trailed by an assortment of photographers, stylists, make-up artists and assistants hauling gear, each intent on capturing the perfect shot of the happy couple. 

Pre-wedding shoots such as these have become big business in China in recent years and some of these couples could be spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars. Most seem none too concerned by the unabashed attention they’re attracting from passers-by, who stop to stare and take their own photos. 

A short walk away, Yu Garden in Shanghai’s Old City is another local spot that tends to crop up in pre-wedding pictures, though it’s packed this morning not with bridal parties but with tourists, domestic and foreign. With a history stretching back to the Ming Dynasty, the ornamental garden is regarded as one of Shanghai’s premiere attractions — but, like the similarly popular Shanghai Museum, I’d recommend visiting with a guide to get a proper sense of its significance.

Far more straightforwardly engaging — for me, at least — is the neighbouring Yuyuan Bazaar. Its crowded streets are filled with small shops, some of them highly specialised: one only has chopsticks, another handcrafted combs, another elaborate leather backpacks adorned with three-dimensional animal faces. It’s a good place for people watching, picture taking and souvenir shopping, but also to grab lunch. 

I skip the queue for side-plate sized soup dumplings, which diners suck dry with a straw before eating, and join the (surprisingly) slightly more modest line at the takeaway window for the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Company. A local landmark with a history dating back to the early 1900s, it’s regarded by many food snobs as rather overrated, but I enjoy my dozen pork soup dumplings well enough — and particularly like watching the women deftly making dumplings as I wait.

My favourite find of the day, however, happens to be the most unexpected. I’m walking back towards the Bund when I feel as though I’ve strayed into someone’s front room. I’ve wandered in to a knot of narrow lanes where washing dangles from thick bundles of power cables overhead and residents stand at open kitchens preparing lunch. I’m just a few blocks from the crowds of Yu Gardens and the bazaar but see no other tourists. Locals stroll, chat, sit, smoke. Conversation drifts out an open window. 

Keenly aware of being an outsider, I do my best to appear unobtrusive, wielding my camera with extra care.

And then, quite suddenly, it comes to an end. I cross a main road, and find myself amid a dazzling development of high-rise offices and smart restaurants. 

And as I pause to get my bearings, a woman approaches and asks if I’d mind taking her photograph. I can’t place her accent — Russian, or Eastern European, I guess — but she poses like a pro, shoulders back, eyes fixed on the middle distance. And so I hold up her smartphone, frame the scene, and take the picture.

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